3 a.m. -- the graveyard shift: It's never dull after midnight at Ritter's

It's 3 a.m., and while there may be a phone ringing at the White House, there are also a lot of other things going on. Taking our cue from Sen. Hillary Clinton's television ads, the PG today kicks off an occasional series looking at what kinds of jobs folks who aren't in the Oval Office are doing at 3 a.m. Today we go to the venerable Ritter's Diner at 5221 Baum Blvd. in Shadyside.

Like a Saturday night "On Broadway," the lights are bright at Ritter's Diner. There's magic in the air, too, or maybe it's just the smell of bacon.

After midnight on a recent Sunday morning, the waitresses hustle along a well-worn path between the green Formica counter -- where they quickly pick up silverware from a plastic holder -- and that bit of floor space near the front door where they greet customers and show them to their seats.

"How many?" Barbara Seibert asks of a young couple. "Two? Right this way," she says, escorting them to a booth with a mini jukebox.

Barbara Helbling queries the next group, a party of three. Heather Kessler squeezes past, then walks briskly to a booth with her humongous tray, carrying plates of burgers, fries, pancakes and ham hot off Charles Klemz's grill.

Technically, Ritter's belongs to the Velisaris brothers, Art, George, Perry and Pete, who bought the 24-hour Baum Boulevard diner in 1966. But it's Klemz who's manned the grill for 40 years. He worked 30 years strictly on the overnight shift; now he works some daylight shifts, too.

One night in 1968, Klemz, then a 28-year-old former Vietnam paramedic with no cooking experience, stopped by the diner.

"They offered me the job and I've been here ever since," he said taking a rare break from the small kitchen that's been his second home for four decades.

He attributes his longevity on the grill to people he works with "plus the bosses, you can't beat them."

Pressed for a specialty dish, Klemz scoffs at such loftiness.

"I classify myself as a short-order cook," he says. "I'm no prep cook. I'm no gourmet chef. Just a short-order cook."

After a few minutes, he returns to the kitchen, where 21-year-old Brent Corey and co-owner Perry Velisaris are holding down the grill.

Klemz throws on a hamburger patty. The grill hisses. Then he cracks a couple of eggs.

A waitress calls in an order. "I need two wheat ... be right back."

Stationed left of the front door, just two steps across from the restaurant's ATM (Ritter's accepts only cash) is Tula Velisaris, Perry's wife. She sits on a stool behind a glass display case which holds plastic buckets of Bazooka Bubble Gum, Peppermint Patties and Tootsie Pops. Also in the case is the restaurant's Bronze Medal for Late Night Bite from Pittsburgh Magazine.

Mrs. Velisaris smiles at each diner. She is cheerful and gives no hint that she was roused out of bed to operate the cash register on this busy night.

'It's entertainment'

Diners come in a seemingly unending stream of twos and and threes and sometimes fours and fives. After all, Ritter's is one of the few places still open after the bars and clubs have closed.

"Business is better sometimes in the morning," says Seibert as she tallies up a bill. She works the overnight shift Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. But she doesn't mind because the money's good.

"It's just my sleep pattern is off," she says.

Helbling agrees it's hard to go home and relax when you're all "caffeined up."

"Most of us drink a lot of tea, coffee, Mountain Dew and Red Bull to stay awake," explains Helbling, who's worked at Ritter's for 15 years.

But the overnight shift seems made to order for 25-year-old Kessler. "It's entertainment. It's just a different pace," she says. "Maybe it's my age."

Nate Baker isn't a young man, but he's been working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at Ritter's for 12 of the 15 years he's been there.

"I'm used to it. It really doesn't bother me," says Baker, who buses tables.

"I have met people here from all over the world," he says. How does he know where they're from? "By the way they talk and the clothes they wear."

Multi everything

The crowd at Ritter's is a myriad of multis -- multicultural, multigenerational and multisexual orientations. This cultural confluence is part of the restaurant's early morning charm.

It's admittedly one of the attractions for Adrian Hawkins and Kisha Strothers, both of Wilkinsburg, who stop in around 2:30 a.m.

"We come to eat, enjoy ourselves and watch other people," says Strothers.

For Hawkins there is an additional attraction.

"I'm from the South and they serve fried green tomatoes," said Hawkins, who hails from Birmingham, Ala., but has lived here for 16 years. "Ain't nothing like the taste of fried green tomatoes."

But the atmosphere is just as important.

"Ritter's is people," Strothers declares.

By 2:45, Ritter's is a lot of people. Nearly all of the 22 booths and tables in the front section of the diner are filled. There are even a couple of people in the back dining room.

Occupying a group of tables near the back are members of the group, The Surreal McCoy. Two are decked out in fringy Western shirts and one in a cowboy hat. They've just finished performing at Club Cafe on the South Side before a sold-out crowd.

On Friday night they'd played a prison in Fayette County, and the night before that a gig at West Virginia University, explains lead singer Cletus McCoy, who's joined in Ritter's by bandmates Goatboy and Clint.

Their MySpace page describes them as "a whiskey-soaked psycho-billy musical assault team that specializes in BOTH kinds of music: Cow and Punk."

But at this moment the only thing they're assaulting are pancakes.

It's 3 a.m.

Youth factor

Ten minutes later, a group of friends from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, seated in the first booth, place their orders after working up an appetite roller skating in Bloomfield.

They are young, attractive, diverse 20-somethings. The kind you'd see on MTV's "The Real World."

"I like diners," says 20-year-old Melissa Hellmann. "It's more personal than fast food," adds boothmate Tim Hirsh, 22.

By 3:20, Hirsh is tearing into eggs and home fries as is Hellmann, who's drowning her potatoes in ketchup.

Dan Schmitt, 22, arranges the lettuce on his cheeseburger, which, of course, is accompanied by fries. Boothmate Colleen Quinn, 20, also goes the cheeseburger/french fries route while Trinity Schepp, 22, opts for chicken strips.

"We're gonna be up until like 6 a.m.," Schepp says.

Maybe they will. But over at the counter, sharply dressed Bruce El, in a hat, sport coat and dress shoes, is about to call it a night.

The 55-year-old Monroeville man, who's been coming to Ritter's for years, is getting his pancakes, home fries and scrambled eggs to go.

"I don't eat meat," he says. "I'm diabetic."

He won't be eating anything right away. El is saving it for later.

"When I get up I put that in the microwave and BINGO, I'm ready to go."

Fuel for debate

By 4 a.m., the steady stream has slowed to a trickle. A new late-night group of friends has replaced the students in the front booth.

Gene Stovall, Tony "Funk" Thomas, Christina Gavin and Reese "DJ Vex" Brown are a mix of bartenders and performers.

No one raises a brow as they accompany Earth, Wind and Fire on the jukebox.

"Reasons, the reasons that we're here," the group sings, trying to hit the nearly impossible falsetto of EWF's lead singer Philip Bailey.

"If I'm hungry after work, I come here," says Thomas.

Stovall, who hosts open mic night at the nearby Shadow Lounge, also sings and plays guitar " 'cause if I don't [work] I don't get paid."

Everybody orders breakfast.

"We have philosophical conversations," Reese says. "It's always a lot of debates," Stovall chimes in.

And it's always easier to debate at 4 a.m. on a full stomach.

Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.


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